Bipartisan pollsters have found rural Americans feel policymakers are ignoring them at a time when they need public infrastructure investments to compete and thrive in 21st century economic opportunities.
It’s likely that feelings of widespread neglect started long before the recent farm and food bill debacle in the House of Representatives. First, there were major cuts to nearly every aspect of the food and farm bill, with SNAP being the biggest. Another, less covered, disappointment came to small town economic developers with the scaling back of U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs. These include vital funds that help build nursing homes, medical centers, provide financing to businesses, help fund utility and waste water infrastructure, along with a number of other initiatives in rural communities.
After that attempt at a farm bill failed, the House split the SNAP portion from the rest of legislation, passing just the agricultural policy, which threw into doubt the entire outcome of our nation’s food and farm program.
There is a term for this strategy. It is called “benign neglect.” Poll results released by the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska show rural Americans are definitely feeling neglect.
Summing up findings, conservative pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group said Midwestern and Southeastern rural residents “want more efficient and effective government and view much of public policy as a fairness issue in which rural America has not received fair treatment.”
Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners, which usually provides public opinion services for progressive and nonpartisan groups, and Goeas found nine of 10 rural residents believe rural and small-town ways of life are worth fighting for, but they “believe the rural way of life may be fading and they want to stop it, reverse it, and revitalize rural America.” Moreover, the rural residents blame policymakers and political bickering for “the state of the rural economy,” they said.
Lake specifically cited rural support for job training, preschool, healthcare, and such USDA Rural Development programs as bringing technology to rural areas and “increased infrastructure investments.” All require a role for government “in making things better,” she noted.
Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, said other findings found eight in 10 rural residents favor grants and loans to revitalize small towns through water and sewer, roads and bridges projects; and three-fourths of respondents favor tax credits and investment for development of wind, solar and other renewable electric generation in rural areas.
These findings square with sentiments expressed by rural community leaders in a Minnesota 2020 report, Blueprints for Rural Progress, which highlighted numerous USDA Rural Development-backed infrastructure developments in rural Minnesota.
Despite the popularity of these programs, there’s been about a $900 million downward swing in funding over the past decade for USDA Rural Development. While there was a temporary boost for stimulus programs in 2009 and 2010, these programs have mostly faced cutbacks since 2003.
For many urban planners, city leaders and nonprofit service providers, this will sound like the proverbial other shoe dropping – this time on rural America.
The concept of “benign neglect” has its roots in urban politics and planning. In 1969, White House urban affairs adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan sent President Richard Nixon a memo saying racial tensions in the country might benefit “from a period of ‘benign neglect.’” Moynihan, who would later serve three terms as a senator from New York, was furious when someone in the White House leaked the memo to the press in early 1970. Moynihan insisted the civil rights movement and Nixon critics interpreted it in a different light than he intended.
Intentions and practice, like politics itself, can sometimes make strange bedfellows.
Sociologists argue the lasting impact that benign neglect played in race-related policies. It lingers on as a strategy to deny funding for government programs without the controversy of having Congress vote directly on ending programs.
This worked for conservatives in Congress and for later administrations to gradually reduce support for urban and poverty programs that were hallmarks of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s. It worked again in the 1980s when major public works programs, in particular Western water development such as North Dakota’s huge Garrison Diversion Project, were scaled back from original intentions.
“The strategy is that you starve programs to death without having to vote one way or another on it,” said former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland of Roseau.
The legislative tool found new application in the past decade with cuts to USDA Rural Development funding. Now, a more aggressive use of the tool is coming into play that hits people, both rural and urban, said Bergland, who was a member of Congress from northwestern Minnesota before serving in the Agriculture post.
By cutting food assistance for people in need and cutting money for rural development, “you make the ‘other guys’ who believe in the programs kill the farm bill for you,” Bergland said.
“There’s not much doubt that is what some House leaders are trying to do,” he said.
No matter how the strategy plays out, rural Minnesotans like other rural Americans will feel neglected. They already do.